Will the war on credit out-spend the war on terror? Or will one crash bring an end to another? Washington, London, Baghdad and Kabul last week saw concerted moves by the western powers to disengage from their seven-year war on militant islam. When it comes to truly stupefying public spending, even super-policemen cannot walk and chew gum at the same time.
So far the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars still far out-strips that of the credit crunch rescues of the past fortnight. The international economist, Joseph Stiglitz, last year put the cost of Iraq alone at three trillion dollars, though he did impute the value of lives lost and other investment opportunities foregone. But even official figures are now running close to a trillion dollars. Such money might seem tolerable when it was "skim" from the west's unprecedented two decades of wealth. With national budgets collapsing into debt on all sides, they are simply unaffordable.
Hence the onrush of realism. Last Wednesday, America reached a draft agreement with the Baghdad government of Nouri al-Maliki, to bring American troops under Iraqi sovereignty at the end of this year and to leave Iraq, on some shape or form, by 2011. Two days earlier the British government agreed with Maliki's statement that its 4,100 troops in the country were "not necessary" and should also leave soon, possibly next year.
As so often before, an invading power sucked into the vortex of occupation is now crafting a way of declaring victory and departing. The American election campaign offers a crucial rite of passage, with John McCain declaring Iraq a "success" and the recent "surge" a triumph. American voters overwhelmingly want to get out. They have even found a general, David Petraeus, whom they believe can deliver that outcome.
Petraeus's surge, a delicate mix of high-intensity policing, tactical alliances with enemies and cool diplomacy with Shia politicians, has capitalised on a cruder syndrome, sheer exhaustion.
Talking to Petraeus in London last month, I found him not just intelligent but extraordinarily hesitant for a soldier. His answer to any question about how he intended to progress the conflict with a crisp "by agreement." Yet his current standing down of 80 per cent of the Sunni "awakening" militias is highly risky. The movement of insurgents north to Mosul and the Kurdistan border is full of foreboding.
Iraq is still the world's most violent and precarious nation (after Somalia), and its infrastructure is not back to pre-invasion levels. There could hardly be a more damning indictment of the west's incompetence at nation-building. But America's voters and half-hearted coalition partners have had enough. Iraqis too have had enough. It is a matter of how to retreat in reasonably good order.
Most tragic is that the painful lessons of Iraq have yet to be learned by Nato and American commanders in Afghanistan. Even the otherwise sane Barack Obama campaign team is in denial over that war, where the same belligerence against the insurgents and reckless use of air power fuels rebellion and acts as a magnet for terrorists from all over the globe.
Briefings in 2006 by the gung-ho Nato commander, Sir David Richards (now head of the British army), seem a distant fantasy. His talk was all of Malaya and winning hearts and minds, as if any mention of Iraq was beneath his dignity. Now Vietnam is a better parallel, with talk of needing ever more troops to establish security. As in Vietnam there is the daily use of kill-rates and assassinations of enemy leaders to imply impending victory.
That said, the reassessments pouring out of Kabul are devastating. A leaked presidential report talks of a "downward spiral" in the war against the Taliban. The head of the American joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told Congress much America was not winning, echoing similar phrases from the CIA. The British ambassador in Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, reportedly gave the Foreign Office the gloomiest possible account of "the worsening security situation," and the corrupt state of the Kabul government.
The reckless use of force along the border alienates the Pakistan government, without whom any curtailment of the uprising is impossible. Westerner policy fails to understand what is apparent to any visitor to Islamabad, that Pakistan has a massive vested interest in not alienating the semi-autonomous tribes along the Afghan border.
The Afghan insurgency is widespread, tribal and conducted by the world's toughest guerrillas of both mountain and plain, the Pashtun. They will never be beaten. They would prefer to hold sway only over their own uplands, but the war has drawn them into a wider, and to them nobler, conflict with the hated west, making them easy prey for the ideological warlords of al-Qaeda.
Policy in Afghanistan has gone haywire since the heady days of 2001, when it was to be a template for liberal interventionism. As a result, with painful slowness, Nato is sketching the scenario of withdrawal, even behind a smokescreen of force enhancement.
The code is that we must "talk to the Taliban." Thus accorded the status of world power, this murky entity is in reality a roaming coalition of clans and opium traders along the length of the Pakistan border. Its once-horrific image is being carefully softened by western spokesmen, as purportedly ready to bring order to the south and east of the country. The Taliban are suddenly not the problem but the solution.
Waging war in Afghanistan ranks with marching on Moscow in the canon of military folly. Yet such was the bombast of the Bush/Blair alliance that this folly was widely supported by liberal opinion in Britain and elsewhere. Now others must end it, and end the killing of tens of thousands of Britons, Americans and Afghans, a slaughter now spreading over the territory of the world's most unstable nuclear power.
It is obscene to justify this carnage and this danger by citing a few rebuilt Afghan schools and roads, as British ministers persistently do. This country will never be at peace, and Pakistan never safe, until the west withdraws its troops, and probably not even then. We shall leave another nation in ruins.
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